There has been a trend in baseball to focus on defensive stats and there isn’t a shortage of numbers: Arm (Outfield Arm Above Average), DPR (Double Play Runs Above Average), RngR (Range Runs Above Average), ErrR (Error Runs Above Average), WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating).
If you don’t know what they stand for or what they mean, that’s fine. It just means you have a life. We won’t waste your time trying to describe them but we will show you pictures of what they mean courtesy of Willie Harris.
It is tough to describe Justin Maxwell’s season with one word but it was a journey, a constant journey between Syracuse and Washington. He entered Spring Training with a chance to start in right field, a spot left vacant when the Nats jettisoned Elijah Dukes on St. Patrick’s Day. He didn’t make the cut–literally at the plate or figuratively on the roster–and was sent to the Minors on one of the final days of camp. He made the journey back and forth between the Majors and Minors four times during the season and finally stuck with the Nats on August 2.
Maxwell has a long, equine stride the makes him look as graceful as a deer in the field but he has never found his rhythm at the plate with the Nationals. He started just 26 games–played in 67–and batted .144 (15-for-104) with three home runs, 12 RBI and 43 strikeouts. At the same time, he had 25 walks and a .305 OBP. It is there that lies the conundrum: he has a great eye at the plate but has too many holes in his swing and frequently strikes out. As an everyday center fielder for the Chiefs, he batted .287 (66-for-230) with six home runs, 21 RBI and a .390 OBP in 66 games.
The Maryland native never got a chance to play every day in the Majors and was used primarily against lefties. It raises the question… was he having trouble hitting because he wasn’t playing regularly or was he not playing regularly because he was having trouble hitting?
“To be a regular in the Big Leagues, you got to be able to hit right-handed pitching,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “It is a challenge, and he works very hard and he puts in a lot of time. …We’re waiting for it all to come together.”
When the bases are loaded, he doesn’t have a problem hitting any type of pitching. He is 3-for-5 with three home runs, one walk and 13 RBI with the bases full.
Maxwell isn’t at the crossroads of his career but the 2011 season will answer a lot of questions and determine his future as a Nationals player. Can he be an everyday Major League outfielder in the Majors? He doesn’t lack speed or talent but will he be able to consistently hit right-handed pitching? We will find out next year.
Collin Balester no longer has a mustache that could be confused for a squirrels nest but he is rocking a Grizzly Adams offseason beard. As he put it, “It feels like a very high turtle neck of human hair.” Balester is the type of person who would casually wear a turtle neck and not just to an ugly-Christmas sweater party. He is the same person who asked to wear No. 99 this spring, a number not even reserved for players who will never make the team. He finally got his wish this season and brazenly said in Spring Training, “I got 99 problems but a pitch ain’t one.” One pitch for Balester has never been a problem but many pitches in one game became a problem.
He didn’t pitch well at Spring Training and went 1-3 with an 11.65 ERA in five starts with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs. He struggled with his control, fell behind early in counts, walked batters and just couldn’t get batters out. Something had to change. Balester was converted to a reliever and it might have saved his career. He can now just focus on one inning and one batter at a time. He became more aggressive with his fastball that now reaches the mid-90s and his stuff became more effective with shorter stints.
He was called up in September for the third time in 2010 and made a lasting impression. He posted a 1.35 ERA (2 ER/ 13.1 IP) with 16 strikeouts and a .136 BAA (6-for-44). He still struggled with his control at times, walking seven batters. And while he was never pitching in pressure situations, he regained his confidence when he stands on the mound.
“I’ve learned more about pitching coming out of the bullpen than I ever have,” Balester said. “It’s just going out there and pounding the strike zone. You really feel the heat when you go out there and walk guys. When I’m able to throw strikes, my curveball got a lot better this year, and it’s a better one-two punch. If I throw strikes and get to that curveball, it’s a little easier that way, instead of having it be 2-0. These guys can hit 100 miles per hour in this League. If you get ahead of these guys, you can pitch with your best stuff. That’s what’s been working.”
Balester made the most of role reversal and it appears it will be his spot to lose in the bullpen this spring.
On a much different note, the mind of Collin Balester is a mysterious and puzzling place. We won’t try to be Sigmund Freud and dive into it but we always like keeping up with Balester. He makes it pretty simple too. He is a social network addict–aren’t we all though? Now that the season is over, he has a lot of time to update his twitter account. He tweets as often as ESPN breaks news about Brett Favre.
See for yourself the philosophical and informative pearls of wisdom bestowed by Balester:
“Cooking class was a success. But I just want to go to eating class haha. My wife cooks I eat and clean.” about 11 hours ago
“It sorta feels like a tornado hit a volcano out here in california. Don’t really know what that means ask @eminem. It’s feels pretty good.” 4:06 p.m. Oct. 25th
“Crushing NHL 11 online like it’s my day job.” 10:03 a.m. Oct. 25th
“I was watching the phillies giants game in the mirror at the gym and Halladay and lincecum would make siiiiick lefties. Wow” 10:48 p.m. Oct. 21st
“Brushing your teeth 2 times back to back is like the best thing ever. At the best store ever right now ikea.” 4:20 p.m. Oct. 20th
“Offseason beards are so money. Feels like a very high turtle neck of human hair.” 7:31 p.m. Oct. 16th
I dropped my phone the first try at taking a pic of that spider because it jumped at me a little. So I learned my lesson with mother nature” 10:28 p.m. Oct. 15th
“6 pounder” http://plixi.com/p/50688260 12:02 a.m. Oct. 15th
“Why is it that every hole number 10 I get like 10 plus on??” 2:59 p.m. Oct. 14th
There is a good chance Jordan Zimmermann will never lose a staring contest–he might not even have a pulse. His cold, stagnant stare is always the last face to show excitement or defeat in anything he does.
For better or worse, Zimmermann’s poker face remains as constant as Boise State winning football games. If he gives up a home run… it isn’t the end of the world. If he wins a game… nice, but there is another game to focus on. You won’t see him pump his fist after a strikeout to end an inning or see him punch his glove in disgust after giving up a home run. The 11 screws and two metal plates in his face–a ball struck him and broke his jaw in two places in college–remain motionless with the rest of his muscles no matter what the outcome is.
“You just have to stay even keel,” Zimmermann said. “You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. So that’s what I try to do.”
Not too high, not too low. It is a skill he learned from his humble upbringing in the farm fields, fishing boats and deer stands across central Wisconsin. He grew up in Auburndale, Wis., a town with 738 residents, a railroad track and Main Street. It is tough to know if you are leaving, entering or in the middle of nowhere when you drive down Main St.–you might be doing all three at the same time–but there is no doubt the town molded Zimmermann into the man he is today. And yes, the local high school has an annual “Bring Your Tractor to School Day.” He didn’t come out of nowhere–even if you are thinking only in nowhere can you drive a tractor to school–but it may be right next to it. He played collegiate baseball at UW-Stevens Point, a small D-III school nestled in the pristine Wisconsin hills.
Not too high, not to low. That’s how he handled the news when he needed ligament-replacement surgery last year. He missed the entire second half of the 2009 season and didn’t make his 2010 debut until August 26. He had been knocked out before, but this time was different. He knew his jaw would heal but would his arm fully recover?
“When the arm is healing,” Zimmermann said, “you don’t know if you’re ever going to be the same.”
After seven starts, he seems to have returned to the Zimmermann of old. In his second start, he pitched six scoreless innings of one-hit ball with nine strikeouts against the Marlins. They weren’t all masterpieces; he allowed five runs in three of the seven starts. But it was a few bad pitchers here, a few home runs there and all of a sudden there were five runs on the scoreboard. It was apparent he was getting more comfortable as his arm got stronger and he was nearly perfect in his last two starts. He recorded his first win since June 25, 2009, struck out eight, and allowed just two runs–both solo shots–in 11 innings of work. It is safe to say: he’s back.
He is back and it never seems too early to envision Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg as the Nationals’ two-headed pitching monster in 2012.
It is exciting thinking about him pitching in 2011 and if you want to see Zimmermann really excited just put him in a fishing boat. But the truth is he loves baseball more than anything, even if you can’t tell by his straight face and monotone voice after a quality pitching performance. He loves it. Just ask him about his town back home, his college, his family or former baseball team and how they all rally around him every single start.
You will see the smile.
It may be a while until we know the full effect the 2010 season had on John Lannan but the initial prognosis is positive. For Lannan, the 2010 season was an emotional rollercoaster ride. It was a learning experience, the type of season where at times it felt like it was the end of the world and only in retrospect could he appreciate the lessons learned.
He started the season as the Nats’ Opening Day starter but never really pitched like one. He struggled with his control, mechanics and could never get his fastball to sink–the key to his previous success–going 2-5 with a 5.76 ERA with 35 walks in 14 starts. The lowest of his lows occurred on June 20 when he had a 10.38 ERA, allowed 38 base runners and lasted only 13 innings in three starts from June 9-20. He was demoted to Double-A Harrisburg on June 21. The team felt he should be sent to Harrisburg–not Triple-A Syracuse–because Lannan had history with Harrisburg Pitching Coach Randy Tomlin.
He worked with Tomlin to adjust his mechanics and alter his arm angle so he wouldn’t show his pitches as early in the delivery. He noticed a difference in the first start. He started to locate his fastball and felt confident throwing his curveball and slider. He stopped trying to be a power pitcher and started to just be John Lannan, the same groundball pitcher that got him to the Majors. He was recalled on August 1, revamped, revitalized and ready to pitch. He started to grow his hair longer and wore his socks low.
“They sent him down to the Minor Leagues and he went down there, persevered and faced a lot of adversity,” Willie Harris said. “He came back and he is a different person.”
He was a different pitcher too. He record three wins in his first four tries. Those three wins came after a no-decision and marked the first time Lannan has won three consecutive starts in his career. He won just two games in the first 14 contests he played prior to the Minor League stint.
“The main thing for me was going out there and being confident in my stuff and throw each pitch with a purpose,” Lannan said. “I was more sure of my stuff since I came back.”
He went 6-3 with a 3.42 ERA (68.1 IP/ 26 ER), 47 strikeouts and just 14 walks in 11 starts. He never pitched less than 5.0 innings and lasted at least 6.0 innings in seven of the starts.
“It was an experience that I wouldn’t take back,” Lannan said. “One thing I did learn was to take the positives from each day no matter how bad the day is. Just work on what you thought was positive and move forward.”
It all clicked for Roger Bernadina on May 12 (see above). It was a dreary day in New York and the Nationals were preparing to play the rubber match of a three game series against the Mets at Citi Field. The conditions were far from perfect and maybe that’s why they were just right for Bernadina whose ascension through the Minors was anything but seamless.
The Nats’ coaching staff gathered like they do before every game and concluded that Bernadina was ready to show he was a Major League player. Manager Jim Riggleman boldly predicted Bernadina would hit a double and a triple in the afternoon’s game–not just record two hits but a double and a triple. It was like bravely betting the house on green in roulette–the odds were next to nil. Bernadina was batting .212 (7-for-33) with three runs and one RBI in 12 games.
It goes without saying, Riggleman was wrong in his prediction but he was right in the outcome. He just underestimated Bernadina a little bit. Bernadina went 3-for-5 and hit two home runs–including a two-run blast to right to win the game 6-4 in the top of the ninth. He also showed off his range in the outfield by robbing Jeff Francoeur of a three-run double in the fifth inning with a gravity-defying, highlight reel catch.
The break on May 12 was much different from the break he got in 2009–a type of break that ruins career not propels them. Bernadina fractured his right ankle while making a leaping catch in center field on April 18. Before his season could really begin–his first start–it was over. He would return to full strength and he proved it on that fateful day.
Bernadina had finally arrived. He was now more than a raw athlete with potential. In one day, he raised his batting average 51 points and solidified a spot as the everyday right fielder.
“He’s just scratching the surface of his ability level,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s come up here and has shown flashes of that everyday corner outfielder that he can be.”
Ian Desmond has never been short on hyperboles or stories but he has watched Bernadina develop since their days together in Savannah, Ga., with the Single-A Sand Gnats in 2005. He has some unforgettable memories of Bernadina making “unbelievable” catches and throws. Desmond knew he was capable of this and knew it was only time before everyone else witnessed his skills.
“I’ve just been telling everybody the whole time this guy is going to be really good,” Desmond said at the time. “Just watch. Let him play and watch. People are like, ‘Eh, we’ll see.’”
So can Roger Bernadina be any everyday player? The sample size grew a little bit–one full season in the Majors–but the verdict is still out. Succeeding in baseball is all about being consistent–anyone can be great for a day. At his best on June 28, Bernadina was hitting .291 (46-for-158) with five home runs, 23 RBI and a .354 OBP. In the beginning of the season, he only played when right-handed pitchers started but towards the end of the season he showed he can hit left-handed pitching, but began to struggle at the plate against lefties and righties. From August 13 until the end of the season, he batted .201 (32-for-159) with four home runs and 16 RBI.
“He’s scuffed results-wise,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “The game is not physically demanding on him. He’s just a physical specimen. He could be playing football. The guy is not going to be worn down physically. The grind is mental. He’s had some ups and downs. He’s had times where he’s really looked like he’s ready to go to the next level. Then he got in a little funk where he struggled. He’s passionate about it. He doesn’t say much, but he’s really upset with himself when he makes outs. He’s worked very hard.”
He really could be playing football. He looks like a wide receiver in a baseball uniform. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his body and if there is you are going to need a magnifying glass to find it. Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman call him T.O.–short for the NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens who is famously known for doing sit-ups shirtless in his driveway in front of camera crews during a contract dispute in 2007. Bernadina is T.O. without the drama or baggage. He is reserved in the clubhouse and has a smile as bright as the Curacao sun. He chews gum like it is his second job–he has a piece in his back pocket at all times–and competes with Adam Dunn for the best bubble-blower on the team.
It took him seven years in the Minors and a broken ankle, but he finally got his chance to play in the Majors. It wasn’t easy but it has never been easy.
“He’s got power,” Adam Dunn said. “When he puts everything together, he’s going to be a special player. He’s a young kid, but he’s figuring it out.”
He is still a work in progress but if he figures it out he could be a staple in the Nats’ outfield.
“He’s a guy we’re trying to get as much information on as we can, because we’ve got to see about next year,” Riggleman said. “Do we anoint him as one of our three outfielders, or do we have to look further?”
Yunesky Maya came to the Nationals with a lot of questions surrounding him. Through 10 games–five Minor League and five Major League starts–many of those questions still remain and will have to wait until the upcoming season to be answered.
This is what we do know about him:
*Scouts from teams such as the Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees and, of course, the Nationals picked up on Maya’s talent while he was stringing together successful performances for the Cuban National team and the Cuban National Series, the country’s MLB counterpart.
*Maya finished the 2008-2009 season second in the National Series with a 2.22 ERA and second in strikeouts behind Reds pitcher, Aroldis Chapman–yes, the guy with the 105-mph, record-breaking fastball.
*Maya won the league’s equivalent to the Cy Young Award. Yes, over that same person named Chapman and Maya would not play another season in Cuba.
*Last year, Maya defected and found himself in a holding ground of sorts–the Dominican Republic–where he would have to wait nine months before being cleared to sign as a free agent in the Majors. The Nationals signed him on July 31.
Maya lives without his family, who remains in Cuba, and he is still adjusting to the new culture and language barrier. His lack of knowledge of the English language dictates that a fellow player translates every time Pitching Coach Steve McCatty or a member of the media would like to speak with him. His name was misspelled once on his own locker room name plate in the Minors but he didn’t have a way of telling anyone. But through the difficulties, Maya has gotten what he wanted–a four-year, $6 million contract and a September call-up after a quick month zipping through the Minors.
He’s now experiencing a completely new life, new language and new league–all of which vary greatly from how he was brought up for 28 years of his life. But those in the Nationals front office and on the coaching staff believe once he becomes accustomed to these outside factors, he will be able to adjust his game quickly as well.
“He’s got to try and play catch-up,” McCatty said. “The culture shock, everything that he’s been through to get to this point, it’s been a lot. It’s a tough adjustment. He’s changing his whole idea how to pitch. Learning in the Big Leagues can be a tough thing to do. You get exposed fairly quickly.”
Despite international experience, Maya is not used to the patience of Major League hitters, who won’t swing at pitches slightly outside the strike zone. The Cuban National Series, while Cuba’s top professional league, is often compared to Double- or Triple-A ball in the States, where hitters are decidedly less patient. On one particular occasion while pitching in the Minors this season, Maya acknowledged that he was not used to walking batters and allowed it to shake him up.
He finished 0-3 with a 5.88 ERA (26.0 IP/ 17 ER), 12 strikeouts and 11 walks in five Major League starts. In his three losses, he would pitch a solid game, save for one inning. In that one inning, he would walk batters, give up runs and look like a completely different pitcher. These stretches of success show us the pitcher he can become, but his shaky innings lend to questions of sustainability. It’s also important to note that through Maya’s five starts, the Nationals scored just two total runs, both on solo home runs, while he was in the game–run support that only Cliff Lee could appreciate.
Maya’s fastball tops out in the low 90s–he’s not exactly going to intimidate hitters with his speed, but he commands a dominant curveball and slider. “There’s a lot of guys that pitch at that velocity, right around 90 mph in and out, change speeds, good breaking ball, good changeup and fearless,” Manager Jim Riggleman said of Maya’s pitching style. “The guy down there in Florida that beats us a lot, [Marlins starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez], he reaches back and gets 93 mph now and then, but he pitches at 90 mph, right around that area, and just continues to baffle you, and I see a little bit of that in Maya.”
He’s got time to develop and adjust to new a style and reveal his full ability, but how long will fans be patient while Maya tries to convert his international success to success for the Nationals?
“I have a lot more to show, to prove here,” Maya said. “This is the best baseball in the world. Every day, I feel more comfortable. There’s always room for improvement. You’ve got to be positive. I believe I can be successful up here.”
The 2011 season will hopefully show fans what Maya is all about.
Nationals fans had to say goodbye to Josh Willingham nearly two months early this season due to a nagging knee injury. It first forced Willingham out of the lineup and then to the operating table for season-ending surgery on August 18. Willingham said the pain started in April, but by looking at the numbers, no one would have ever guessed it. He opened up the first week of the season with a home run, seven RBI and five walks in six games–not to mention a .421 batting average, a .520 on base percentage and a .684 slugging percentage. He didn’t stop there. In an impressive month of May, he hit seven homers and drove in 22 runs on the way to a 1.037 OPS.
Willingham played brilliantly throughout the first half of the season, bringing himself into the All-Star conversation while maintaining a 30-home run, 100-RBI pace to go along with improved, solid defense with only one error committed. He isn’t known for making dazzling, over-the-wall catches like Nyjer Morgan, or blasting monstrous long balls as far as Adam Dunn, but for what it’s worth, Willingham still makes the catches and still hits the home runs. Why else would they call him “The Hammer”? But his play, much like his personality, often flies under the radar. He’s the good guy who gets the job done quietly.
Willingham has been the model of consistency since he started receiving regular playing time in the Majors in 2006 for the Marlins. He has maintained an OPS in the .800s for five consecutive years, and his home run production has remained steady–over six years, he averages a home run every 21 at bats, never wavering much higher or lower from year to year.
Willingham is a reliable, solid all-around player who can be counted on to contribute in a variety of ways. He’s powerful enough to rip the long ball, yet patient enough to wait for a good pitch–he swung at just 39.1 percent of the pitches he saw this year and led all Nationals with a .389 on base percentage. Unlike the average power hitter, he racks up walks, not strikeouts. He’s quick and smart enough to steal, collecting eight stolen bags on the season before being shut down early. Willingham is no one-trick pony and that could make for a raise in arbitration this offseason.
Livan Hernández might have been the Nationals most valuable pitcher in 2010 and he wasn’t even on the team when Spring Training began. For the second straight year, Hernández was without a Major League contract as Spring Training drew near. With each passing day, he patiently waited for a call from the Nationals at his home in Miami–he had a few offers from other teams but he wanted to play for the Nationals. He waited, waited a little longer and waited some more until he finally got the call.
General Manager Mike Rizzo thought he needed some insurance in the starting rotation–he was right–and signed him to a Minor League contract. A refocused Hernández entered camp in shape, determined to win one of the three openings in the starting rotation. He did that and more. He won’t need to wait around this season because the Nats made sure to lock him up for another year.
He is a renaissance man that has helped reshape himself in the offseason with a rigorous conditioning program that includes playing racquetball–he won’t win a fitness contest but he will never miss a start. And it is tough to miss him pitch. He stands on the mound with a bright big smile, chomping his gum just as effortlessly as he pitches, never blowing a bubble but always showing you he has it in his mouth like a kid.
“When I go on the mound, I try to be relaxed and enjoy the game,” Hernández said. “Because if I take it too seriously, too intense, it’s not me. I try to play the game the way I am in life.”
In his first six starts he was nearly perfect. He went 4-1 with a microscopic 1.04 ERA (43.1 IP/ 5 ER). He came back to earth as the season progressed but he still finished with a respectable 10-12 record and a 3.66 ERA (211.2 IP/ 86 ER). He pitched at least six innings in 26 of his 33 starts while leading the team in innings, quality starts (22), complete games (2) and starts. Livo knows what he can and can’t do: he can’t survive in the top half of the strike zone and he can’t overpower batters but he can locate his pitches and outthink hitters with a mid-80′s fastball and a curveball that crawls and falls to the plate.
“Pitching is like real estate: location, location, location,” Hernández said. “You buy the real estate in the best location because you’ll get something good. Same with pitching, you want to locate the ball in the perfect spot.”
Endurance might not be the first word that comes to mind when you look at Livo’s far from built body–don’t expect him to run a marathon or even a few miles–but you can count on him to be on the mound every fifth day. He has never missed a start in his career and he has never been on the disabled list.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel one day when I miss one start,” Hernández said. “Maybe I will go crazy. Maybe I will have to go to the hospital or something.”
Check this out: among active pitchers, he is fifth in wins (166), third in games started (445), second in complete games (49) and fourth in innings pitched (2,946.1). He has a 4.39 career ERA and has pitched at least 180.0 innings the last 13 seasons.
He is an avid golfer and will let you know golf is a hard game. He will then show you how easy he can make it look. His swing is effortless. He plays golf the same way he pitches: cool, calm and graceful. He makes it look so easy. Pick a spot on the driving range and he will put it there.
“If I don’t play golf for two weeks,” Hernández said, “I don’t think I’m going to be the same person.”
But Livo is always Livo, golfing or not. He is the same person win or lose, birdie or bogey, strikeout or home run. The smile is as constant as Livo toeing the rubber every fifth day.
Mike Rizzo has been promoted to Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager and signed a new five-year contract.
“Mike Rizzo is unquestionably one of the best baseball minds in the game,” said Lerner. “He has a unique ability to see player talent for what it is, what it can be, and how it fits into building a team. Mike has been one of the architects of the rebuilding of the entire Nationals player system, from scouting, to player development, to big league signings. We believe the talent foundation we are establishing on and off the field will make the Nationals one of baseball’s most exciting teams over the next several seasons.”
In 2010, the Nationals increased their win total from 59 to 69. Washington’s 10-game improvement tied for the fourth-best in MLB this season and trailed only San Diego (+15), Cincinnati (+13) and Tampa Bay (+12), all three of which either qualified for the post-season or played games with post-season implications on the final day of the season.
While the 2011 season will be Rizzo’s third at the helm of the Nationals’ baseball operations efforts, his stamp can be found throughout the organization that he joined on July 24, 2006.
Wielding a reputation and network that knows no bounds both inside and outside the industry, Rizzo’s presence in DC has attracted scouting, front-office and player-development talents such as Roy Clark (Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Player Personnel), Kris Kline (Scouting Director), Davey Johnson (Senior Advisor to the General Manager), Kasey McKeon (Director of Player Procurement), Bill Singer (Director of Pro Scouting) and Johnny DiPuglia (Director of International Scouting).
In four drafts with Rizzo serving either as General Manager or Vice President of Baseball Operations, the Nationals have twice spent more on the MLB First-Year Player Draft than any other club by adding premium and enduring talents such as right-handed pitcher Stephen Strasburg, outfielder Bryce Harper, right-handed pitcher Drew Storen, right-handed pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, left-handed pitcher Ross Detwiler and infielder Danny Espinosa. Washington’s 2010 draft haul included the signings of 25 of its top 26 selections.